Tu B'shevat: Israeli Arbor Day for Trees

Tu B’Shevat

Hebrew Meaning of Name: “Fifteenth of Shevat” (Jewish calendar month); also known as “Rosh Hashanah La’Ilanot”
Transliterations: Tu Bishvat, Tu Beshvat, Tu B’Shvat
English Name: New Year of Trees; Israeli Arbor Day
Western Calendar Month: January or February
Jewish Calendar Date: Fifteenth of Shevat
Duration: One day

Purpose of Tu B’Shevat

Black-and-white photos from Israel, taken in the 1940s and ’50s on Tu B’Shevat, show the proud reclamation of a dead land. Israeli children, garlanded and decked with flowers, march in procession or dance around blossoming almond trees. They smile shyly as they bear watering cans and potted plants, or dig their hands in the soil to plant baby trees. Women in billowing white tunics carry olive boughs; Israeli flags wave in the winter breeze.[1]

These photos from a nascent nation tell a complex story about an evolving holiday. Tu B’Shevat, a “cutoff for taxing produce”[2]  in ancient Israel, lost almost all meaning after the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century A.D. By the early twentieth century, however, Tu B’Shevat had become a “Jewish Arbor Day” when people would donate to the Jewish National Fund, an organization which among other things plants trees in the state of Israel. The rise of Zionism and environmentalism help explain how Tu B’Shevat, long relegated to minor holiday status, has enjoyed a modern upswell in popularity.

Origin of Tu B’Shevat (Ancient Times)

When exactly Tu B’Shevat emerged as a Jewish holiday is the subject of some debate. We read of it in the Mishnah (compiled ca. A.D. 200), a compilation of early rabbinic thought: “On the first of Shevat is the New Year for Trees, according to the ruling of Beth Shammai. Beth Hillel, however, places it on the fifteenth of that month” (Rosh Hashanah 1:1).

Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel were two major schools of rabbinic Judaism in the Second Temple period. The one followed the teachings of Shammai (ca. 50 B.C.–A.D. 30), a staunch literalist in his interpretations of the Torah; the other to Hillel (ca. 110 B.C.–A.D. 10), who was more permissive. In this particular dispute, Shammai argued for an earlier date, placing the tithe cutoff in midwinter. Hillel sets the New Year for Trees two weeks later, after the cold weather has subsided and spring has poked through in all parts of Israel—high as well as low places. Beth Hillel won out, and so the tithe cutoff was placed later in the year, on the fifteenth of Shevat.[3]

As stated above, Tu B’Shevat lost almost all meaning after the destruction of the Temple and the increased number of Jews living in the Diaspora, which made the fruit tithe irrelevant to Jewish life. Jews marked the day by omitting penitential prayers in synagogue, but otherwise it passed without even reciting the Hallel (the psalms of praise, 113–118, sung on most joyous holidays). But Tu B’Shevat survived and took on fresh meaning in the Middle Ages and in our time.

How Tu B’Shevat Is Observed (Modern Times)

For many centuries Tu B’Shevat served a purely utilitarian function, as a tithe cutoff. That all changed in the Middle Ages, when a group of Jews living in exile reinvigorated the holiday with fresh meaning.

After the Spanish Reconquista of 1492 and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews, a group of Sephardic exiles settled in modern-day Israel, founding the community of Safed. (Safed later became a center for Kabbalah.[4]) By the end of the seventeenth century, the Jews of Safed had developed a Tu B’Shevat Seder, which focused on the mystical aspects of God and the interconnectedness of Man and Nature. The Seder—normally associated with the holiday of Passover—even utilized a sort of haggadah called Pri Etz Hadar (lit. “Fruit of the Citrus Tree”).

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Tu B’Shevat tilted away from the mystical towards the practical. The holiday came to represent the efforts of modern Jews to make a long-neglected land their own. In the early decades of the twentieth century, folk songs like “Hashkediyah Porahat” (“Tu B’Shevat is Here”) intertwined tree-planting with Zionism:

Let’s make the land a garden,
With water from the Jordan;
And our land will flow once more
With milk and honey, as of yore.

Tu B’Shevat is here,
The Jewish Arbor Day,
Hail the trees’ New Year,
Happy holiday![5]

The Jewish National Fund (JNF), Israel’s second-largest landowner after the government, was established in Switzerland in 1901 with the purpose of buying and rehabilitating land in Palestine. It largely oversees tree plantings in Israel. As one journalist writes, “[The JNF’s] tree-planting program long epitomized the Zionist enterprise in its ambition to make the desert bloom.”

Trees have been instrumental to developing the arid land of Israel, bringing moisture to the land, curbing soil erosion and making development possible. With this emphasis on planting, Tu B’Shevat took on greater significance: “Thus planting trees became both the practical means and the symbolic representation of planting Jewish communities in the Land of Israel.”[6]

Tree plantings take place throughout Israel on Tu B’Shevat, often during school field trips and in Jerusalem—except for every seventh year. This exception is based on the shmita, the sabbatical year mandated in Leviticus 25:4: “In the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.”’

Special Synagogue Readings for Tu B’Shevat

There are no special readings. The Shehecheyanu is sung for the eating of new fruit; penitential prayers are omitted and the Hallel is not sung.

Traditional Customs and Folklore of Tu B’Shevat

One anthology describes the unusually free-form nature of Tu B’Shevat: “There is no halakhah, [meaning] no legal structure, to define [Tu B’Shevat]. It springs wholly from the spiritual depth and growth of the Jewish people . . .”[7]

Some Jewish communities, especially those with a kabbalistic bent, mark Tu B’Shevat with a Seder, carrying on the practice established in earlier centuries by the Jews at Safed. Although variants exist, the Tu B’Shevat Seder involves eating nuts, canned fruit, fresh fruit and dried fruit and drinking four types of wine: white, blush, rosé and dark (the intermediate wines are made by a mixture of red and white wine). One tradition says that the various colorations of the wine represent the sefirot of the Lord (“emanations”), a kabbalistic concept. Another tradition explains that the various tinctures represent a change in the color of nature—from white wintry barrenness to springtime bloom. We read the following in the Hemdat Yamim, a first-person narrative written from the perspective of the inhabitants of Safed:

At sunset, people gather in the house of Torah study or in the home of one of the community’s sages or notables. Candles are lit, the tables are covered with white cloths and decorated with myrtle branches, flowers, and greenery, scented with rose water, and set with pitchers of two kinds of wine—white and red . . .

After reading thirteen biblical passages about the produce of the land, fruits, and plants and studying excerpts from the Talmud (mostly tractate Seeds, Zeraim) and the Zohar, the head of the assembly closes with [a] special prayer . . .[8]

Eating fruits and crops described in the Torah (olives, dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat, barley) is said to be particularly meritorious.[9] The various thicknesses of the fruit rinds—thick husks in the case of pomegranates, thin membranes in the case of olives—represent the different tiers of “palpable being” in Kabbalah.[10] One author writes, “The kabbalists say that by eating fruit on Tu BeShvat, with profound kavvanah [intentionality], we can make a tikkun [reparation] for all our eating.”[11] By this line of reasoning, the fruits and nuts consumed during this seder “repairs” personal failings and also reminds kabbalist Jews of the garden of Eden. Among kabbalists, the Tu B’Shevat Seder is even thought to redeem the misdirected eating of Adam and Eve!

There is a tradition of sending food and staging performances on Tu B’Shevat, much like Purim—“Jerusalemites . . . send platters or small bags of fine fruit of the Land to one’s friends. In some Sephardic communities, it was customary to arrange performances for the children, who dressed up as fruit trees. Each kind of tree would ascend the stage and praise itself.”[12]

Other customs include eating bread and planting parsley for the upcoming holiday of Passover.

Spiritual Application of Tu B’Shevat

Jewish believers in Jesus do not adhere to the teaching of the Kabbalah concerning the nature of God (e.g., that there are ten sefirot or emanations connected with God), finding it at variance with the Scriptures. Despite the associations of Tu B’Shevat with kabbalistic thought, there are other ways to appreciate the holiday, such as its emphasis on the environment. Many of us like to think of environmentalism as a distinctly modern movement, but God himself was the original “tree hugger.” Even though Tu B’Shevat is not biblically mandated, God lays the foundation for a respectful consideration of nature in the Hebrew Bible. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy He instructs the Israelites:

When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Deuteronomy 20:19–20)

God does not endorse slash-and-burn policies in the Bible. Rather, he instructs Israel to leave the trees for the eventual provision of food and also for the sake of sparing the unoffending tree.[13]

What did the trees ever do to you? The simple-seeming but searching question posed by God to his people led rabbinical authorities to establish the expansive law of Bal Tashchit (lit. “Do not destroy”). As stewards over God’s creation, Bal Tashchit tells us, we are to refrain from needless destruction (e.g., hunting for sport, wasting oil, etc.).

Another early Jewish commentary lays the groundwork for something like modern-day conservation: “The Holy One led Adam through the Garden of Eden and said, ‘I created all My beautiful and glorious works for your sake. Take heed not to corrupt and destroy My world. For if you corrupt it, there is no one to make it right after you.”[14]

Along with these environmentalist admonitions, Zionism remind us that many verses in the Bible have to do with the land, its reclamation and its restoration. We might remember God’s words in Hosea this Tu B’Shevat:

I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily;
he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
his shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive,
and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

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Establishment of Tu B’Shevat

Obscure; first recorded in the Mishnah, compiled ca. A.D. 200

End Notes

[1] Philip Goodman, ed., Hamishah Asar Bi-Shevat: Program Material for Youth and Adults (New York: Jewish Center Division of the National Jewish Welfare Board, 1950).

[2] Paul Steinberg and Janet Potter, Celebrating the Jewish Year (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2007), 81.

[3] Cf. Rosh Hashanah 14b: “As a general principle, the halachach follows Beth Hillel.”

[4] Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism, generally studied by some Orthodox Jews but recently becoming more widespread in a watered-down popular form…

[5] Harry Coopersmith, “Hashkediya (The Almond Tree),” from The New Jewish Songbook (Springfield, NJ: Behrman Books, 1965), 36–37. English lyrics S. Dinin; Hebrew lyrics M. Dushman; music M. Ravina.

[6] Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, and Arthur Wascow, eds., Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 17.

[7] Ibid., xv.

[8] From Sefer HaMo’adim, vol. 5: Yemei Mo’ed v’Zikaron, Tu BeShvat, p. 329, quoting Hemdat Yamim. Cited in Yitzhak Buxbaum, A Person is Like a Tree: A Sourcebook for Tu BeShvat (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000), 5.

[9] Buxbaum, A Person is Like a Tree, 31.

[10] Ibid. According to the Hemdat Yamim, other seder foods include dates, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts, carobs (bokser in Yiddish), pears, sorb apples, quinces, cherries, crab apples, pistachios, sour cherries, and loquats.

[11] Ibid., 16.

[12] Ibid., 9. Cited from Leket Tu BeShvat, p. 53, quoting Sefer HaMo’adim.

[13] See Elion Schwartz, “Is the Tree Human?” on the potential conflict between these two interpretations—one anthropocentric, the other ecocentric.

[14] Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:13.

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